Columbia Borough Council is again facing accusations of violating the state’s open meetings law.
The allegations come after council voted Tuesday night to award a contract for human resources consulting to a Mifflin County firm.
The previous allegations were made last December and resulted in a warning from the Lancaster County District Attorney’s Office.
Tuesday's agenda item was a surprise to Heather Zink, who is running for a seat on council in November’s election. She asked how council was ready to award a contract that was never been discussed in a public meeting.
“We’ve been discussing this for about six months,” council president Kelly Murphy said.
“Isn’t that a violation of the Sunshine Act? Don’t you have to take actions like this in a public meeting?” Zink asked. “You decided this behind the public’s back.”
Asked after Tuesday’s meeting when discussions about the contract took place, Murphy said “in personnel meetings” held as executive sessions. He said the executive sessions were held under the personnel exception to the Sunshine Act’s open meetings requirements.
After Tuesday’s meeting, Zink said she planned to file criminal charges with the Lancaster County District Attorney’s office.
“They had decided what they were going to spend, everything. It was all already decided. They violated the trust of this community by repeatedly discussing things behind closed doors,” Zink said. “They continue to do it.”
‘We just discussed it among ourselves’
According to council meeting minutes, the contract item was not publicly discussed this year, and council met in executive sessions to discuss personnel matters May 20 and June 5.
The Sunshine Act requires public agencies to conduct their business in open, public meetings. The law does provide limited circumstances allowing for closed door “executive sessions,” including for the discussion of certain personnel related matters. But that provision is often misconstrued and applied improperly. There is no broad exception for all matters related to personnel.
“The Sunshine Act’s personnel executive session allows private deliberation regarding employment matters of specific employees or appointees,” said Melissa Melewsky, Media Law Counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association. “It does not permit private discussions about generally applicable policies or independent contractors.”
Murphy said the executive sessions were information only sessions.
“We didn’t deliberate,” he said. “We just discussed it among ourselves.”
The state Supreme Court has defined deliberation as “the discussion of agency business held for the purpose of making a decision.”
Statements made by Kelly and other council members, prior to the unanimous vote to award the contract, seemed to contradict the no deliberations claim.
Seeking to reassure the residents at Tuesday’s meeting that it had done its due diligence in making the decision, the board laid out the criteria it used to evaluate the three proposals it claimed were sought. Only the proposal submitted by Kathy McCool, who was awarded the contract, was made public.
Council members also spoke of having discussions with borough manager Rebecca S. Denlinger regarding staffing levels and the need for updated job descriptions and personnel policies before deciding to bring in a consultant rather than hire an internal human resources person.
Another alleged Sunshine Act violation
If Zink files criminal charges with the attorney general’s office, it would be the second time in seven months that charges related to alleged Sunshine Act violations are filed against borough council.
Late last year another candidate for council filed charges after the board voted in a closed door November meeting to fund a proposed new position.
The district attorney’s office declined to prosecute council members for that alleged violation, saying it could not prove criminal intent. But it did send the borough a letter warning that now that it has been advised of the law’s requirements, any future allegations of violations would be investigated with an assumption council now knows such actions are illegal.
Council hopeful Sharon Lintner said she agrees with Zink.
“They were warned not to do it again. I don’t get it. It is so simple,” Lintner said. “They need to be transparent with us. Then this wouldn't happen.”